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Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: what is it?

Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: what is it?

June 22, 2024

Ethics and morals are elements that deeply influence our behavior, and on which philosophy and the different sciences that analyze human behavior have tried to reflect and investigate. We limit our behavior towards the possibility of being able to live with others. Why do we act as we act?

There are many philosophical lines of thought that have raised questions about these issues and that have explored the concepts developed to give them an explanation. One of them is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative , which we are going to talk about in this article.

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Kantian morality

Before seeing what the categorical imperative is, it is necessary to make a brief comment on some of the aspects of Kant's conception regarding morality. Immanuel Kant was a theologian deeply concerned about this issue, at a time of great contrasts between ideological currents with different points of view regarding the way of behaving and directing behavior.


The author considered morality as a rational element, away from the empirical elements and based on a universal ethic. For Kant, the moral act is that which is carried out as a duty, as an end in itself: the moral act is one in which one acts on the basis of reason, not the love of oneself or of interest. On the contrary, they will not be those that are carried out by chance, with interest or as a means to reach or avoid other elements.

Moral performance is based on goodwill. The act must be seen in itself in its subjective sense to be valued as moral or immoral. The moral act seeks the happiness of others, which in turn allows its own to be part of humanity, instead of pretending to own one's wishes or flee from pain and suffering. To be moral, one must be free, in a sense that Kant relates to the possibility of transcending one's own desires and imperatives in order to achieve transcendence.


In regard to concepts such as good and evil, widely linked to morality, Kant considers that the acts are good or bad in itself but it depends on the subject that carries them out. In fact, the moral is not the act itself but the purpose behind it : it will be bad if one deviates from the moral laws that govern it, subordinating his universal moral motivations to those of personal interest and sensitivity, while the good is that which follows morality as a universal law in his life and base she carries out and fulfills her wishes based on said morality. A core concept in its concept of morality is the idea of ​​a categorical imperative.

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The idea of ​​Kant's categorical imperative

Everyone at some point has done or pretended to do the right thing, or we have felt bad for not doing it. The concept of categorical imperative of Kant is deeply linked to this fact.


A categorical imperative is understood as the act or proposition that is carried out due to the fact of being considered necessary, without there being more reasons to be carried out than said consideration. They would be the constructions that are made in the form of "I must", without being conditioned by any other consideration, and they would be universal and applicable at any time or situation . The imperative is an end in itself and not a means to achieve a certain result. For example, we can generally say "I must tell the truth", "the human being must be supportive", "I must help another when he is having a bad time" or "we must respect others".

The categorical imperative does not have to have an additive sense, but it can also be restrictive. That is, it is not just about us doing something, but it can also be based on not doing it or not doing it. For example, most people do not steal or harm others because they consider such action something negative per se.

The categorical imperative it is an eminently rational construct , which aims to treat humanity (understood as a quality) as an end and not as a means to achieve something. However, these are imperatives difficult to see in real life in this sense, since we are also very subject to our wishes and guide our actions based on these.

Categorical imperative and hypothetical imperative

The notion of categorical imperative is based mainly on the fact of doing something by doing it, the act itself being an end and without conditions.However, although we can find some exponents of a categorical imperative in real life, most of our actions are motivated by aspects different from the fact of doing them.

For example, we study to pass an exam or go shopping to feed ourselves. I go to class to learn, work to satisfy my vocation and / or get a salary or exercise to relax or get a good physical shape.

We are talking about what the author himself would consider hypothetical imperative, a conditioned demand that is used as a means to an end . It is a proposition that is not universal but relative to the situation we are facing, and which is the most common type of imperative even when we believe that we are doing it as an end in itself.

We must bear in mind that many of the imperatives that govern us can be categorical or hypothetical depending on how they arise. I can not steal because it seems wrong or I can not steal because I'm afraid of being caught and taken to jail. In this sense, it is not the action itself but the presence or absence of a motive beyond the moral that leads to action that will generate that we are facing one type of imperative or another.

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The Kantian formulations

Throughout his work, Kant generates different formulations that summarize the moral mandate behind the categorical imperative . Specifically, five major complementary and linked formulas stand out. They are based on the existence of maxims that guide our behavior, being these subjective when they are only valid for the will of the one who possesses them or objective if they are valid for one as for the others, having the same value for all regardless of who the perform The formulations in question are the following.

  • Universal law formula : "Work only according to a maxim such that you can want at the same time that it becomes a universal law".
  • Formula of the law of nature : "Work as if the maxim of your action should become, by your will, the universal law of nature.
  • Formula of the end in itself : "Work in such a way that you use humanity, as much in your person as in the person of any other, always with the end at the same time and never just as a means".
  • Formula of autonomy : "Work as if by means of your maxims you were always a legislating member of a universal kingdom of ends".

In conclusion, these formulas propose that we act on the basis of universal moral values ​​or that we rationally consider that we should all follow, self-imposed by our own reason and considering these values ​​an end in itself. Following these maxims we would act on the basis of our categorical imperatives , looking for the happiness of others and acting morally, in such a way that we would also live doing what is right and getting gratification of this fact.

Bibliographic references

  • Echegoyen, J. (1996). History of Philosophy. Volume 2: Medieval and modern philosophy. Editorial Edinumen
  • Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Madrid. Editorial Alliance (Original of 1785).
  • Paton, H.J. (1948). Categorical Imperative: A study in Kant's moral philosophy. Chicago University of Chicago Press.

Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35 (June 2024).


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